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Did You Know? Campanian (Champagne)

The geology of the cognac producing region is the single most important factor in the success of the famous drink. The spirits success rests solidly on chalk – a very special sort of chalk known as Campanian chalk, named after the Latin original of the word. This became known as Champagne and exists under most of the Grande Champagne area.

There are two other chalk varieties which are defined mainly by their porosity. Santonian, named after the general cognac region of Saintonge is found mainly to the south of Cognac. Coniacian chalk is found around the town of Cognac. The physical composition of the chalk is almost as important as the geological make-up. It should be friable and not too compacted, so that the vine roots can penetrate through to the underground streams.

Perhaps a confusing factor is that the boundaries were decided by administrators not geologists, so they include the clay bed of the Charente river and the banks of the Né to the south. Perhaps the biggest problem the Cognacais have, is the use of the word champagne, which was stolen by the wine makers 500 miles north east and who use it for the name of their fizzy wine, which also grows on chalk slopes similar to those around Cognac…

Brandyclassics’s online store sells a wide selection of Grande Champagne cognacsPetite Champagne Cognacs and a exclusive selection of Fine Champagne Cognacs. Cognacs from these crus include some of the most famous cognac houses such as A.E. Dor, Hine, Prunier, Raymond RagnaudA Hardy, as well as our own Hermitage cognac range.



Did You Know? The Charente Terroir

Professor Louis Ravaz was the young professor who established the Station Viticole in Cognac and did much to re-establish the new vines after the Phylloxera around 1890, his definition of the Charente terroir is usefully described thus:

“The same variety of grape can be grown anywhere and in the same way as in the Charente: distillation can be carried out anywhere else as at Cognac and in the same stills; the brandy can be stored in identical casks as those we employ in the region; it can be cared for as well or maybe even better. But the same combination of weather and terrain cannot be found anywhere else. As far as the soil is concerned, it is not enough that it should belong to the same geological formations, it must have the same physical and chemical composition, and no one has ever found such a duplicate. In addition the climate of the region must be identical to that of the Charente and that is almost inconceivable. There is therefore very little chance that all the elements which influence the nature of the product should be found together in any region apart from the Charente; and thus no other region can produce cognac”

He went on to say,

“All the trials which have been made all over the place to produce cognac with the same varieties and the Charentais methods have resulted only in failure”.

What he described then is still the case today…

Brandyclassics sell a number of cognacs from Houses in the Charente region, including a number of Pineaus and our very rare pre-phylloxera Sezerac de Forge Vintage 1805 cognac.

Did You Know? The Ugni Blanc

The Ugni Blanc is the main grape variety planted in the Cognac region. More than 95% of all cognacs are made from this plain and rather tasteless variety, which was first planted after the Phylloxera around 1890.

The variety triumphed and was a huge success, producing weak acidic wines in large volumes. The grape is probably better known to winemakers, especially in Italy as the Trebbiano Toscano from the hills of the Emilia Romagna near Piacenza. It is now so widespread that, according to Jancis Robinson, it probably produces more wine than any other variety. In France it is the most widely planted vine, helped by more than 100,000 hectares devoted to it in the Charente.

Its popularity is in marked contrast to its qualities. These are summed up crisply and accurately by Jancis Robinson: Pale lemon, little nose, notably high acid, medium alcohol and body. It is a very characterless wine indeed. As a vine it’s twin virtues are the tenacity (it keeps its acid right up to late ripening) and of course it’s extraordinary high yields. These two qualities make it an ideal variety for providing a suitably neutral, suitably acid base wine for cognac. One last advantage is the grape bunch – its shape allows air to circulate thus minimising rot.

Most cognacs and armagnacs for sale on the Brandyclassics website contain additional information including the Viticulture, Grape Variety and Flavour about the bottle. Some typical products are shown below.


What does VSOP and XO Cognac mean?

Perhaps the most confusing aspect facing shoppers seeking a decent bottle of cognac is the use of generic terms such as VS, VSOP and XO. The big cognac houses such as Hennessy, Martel, Courvoisier and others use these to describe their highly blended cognacs. These big negoçiants buy their cognacs from around 5000 small producers and blend them together. Often, these blends may contain as many as 2000 different cognacs from individual producers.

The rules governing cognac are many, but essentially it must be double distilled and the final distillation must be between 67 to 72 degrees (alcohol by volume). It can take several decades for the strength to drop naturally to that which most of us drink cognac, 40 degrees. This natural process is by evaporation, the lost alcohol being known as ‘Part des Anges’, the ‘Angel’s Share’. To avoid waiting and to minimise cost, the negoçiants will dilute the young cognacs, often adding sugar syrup and caramel. These additives give colour and soften the fiery effects. In contrast cognacs that have aged naturally develop richer qualities and greater individuality of their flavours.

To set standards of ageing in the wood, the big negoçiants created the terms that we see on the High Street shelves, VS (Very Special) Cognac, VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) Cognac and Napoleon Cognac. Cognacs must be aged in oak barrels and although distillation is not allowed after 31st March, it is usually finished by around Christmas. Official ageing starts immediately after the last official distillation day, i.e 1st April. VS cognacs must age in wood for a minimum of 2 years, VSOP cognacs for 3 years and Napoleon cognacs for 6 years. In practice most houses keep their cognacs in wood rather longer than the minimum period.

Technically XO Cognac  does not have any legal additional age requirements to that of Napoleon Cognac. The term “XO” was created about half a century ago by Hennessy to describe their oldest cognacs. In those days it usually meant cognacs with an average (not minimum), age of around 25 years. Today regrettably, with the pressure on sales volumes most XO cognacs are rather less than 10 years old.

VSOP  Cognacs from Brandyclassics:

At Brandyclassics, we specialise in selling single producer Cognacs, and hence attach rather less importance to the generic terms such as VSOP and XO, and more on the “age statements” and the talents of the individual distillers. However that doesn’t mean to say that you can’t buy VSOP Cognacs from us. We’ve a range of exceptional VSOP Cognacs from the smaller, quality cognac producers – they’re aren’t necessarily more expensive than the big brands, but we’re sure you’ll find they have a much more distinct character and flavour. Here’s a few suggestions for you…

XO  Cognacs from Brandyclassics:

We have a number of excellent XO Cognacs from smaller artisan cognac producers, not the faceless brands such as Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Hine and Martell and Hennessy. XO Cognacs are often bought as gifts by our customers, add we’d like to encourage you to buy a Cognac that’s as unique as the person you’re buying it for…

Did You Know? Brandy and St Bernard Alpine Rescue Dogs

There are 135 official mountain rescue dogs in the Swiss canton of Valais. The St Bernard story began in the year 962 when Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery and hospice in the Swiss Alps. The monastery, situated at 8000 ft was on a route over the Alps from France to Italy and in a particularly treacherous spot, where the monks were able to provide shelter for lost or injured travellers.

By the time Bernard was canonised in 1681, the monastery he founded had started to keep dogs, which the monks found helpful in carrying out their rescue missions. They bred a type of dog that was particularly suited to the harsh weather conditions. It was a huge, energetic, friendly and faultlessly loyal type of Mastiff, with thick fur and a keen sense of smell and hearing. From the 17th century, when the oldest records were identified, through to now, the animals have rescued more than 2500 people.

The monks provided each dog with a barrel around its neck containing brandy, as it was critical to provide a warming drink as soon as possible. The dogs were first referred to informally as St Bernards in 1833 and the name became official in 1880. It has been reported recently that due to the harsh economic climate, the traditional brandy barrel around the dogs neck has been replaced with a Nespresso coffee machine which offers a choice of espresso or  black coffee. The makers also wanted to include a cappuccino option but they had problems with the wind – plus it looked as though the dogs were rabid.

Whilst avalanche victims may have limited options, you might think twice before attracting a 100 kg animal foaming at the mouth! So if you are going on a winter skiing vacation this Christmas, do make sure you take your own bottle of Hermitage Cognac – strictly for emergencies of course!